Universalism vs. the What-About-Mes

May 10, 2016

This primary season has made plain Americans’ dissatisfaction with American politics – dissatisfaction because someone else seems to be getting all the goodies and concern. The right wing thinks the poor are the government’s favorites. The left wing sees its wages and taxes mostly benefitting the super wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump mined the political backlash from special interest politics. Trump’s apparent nomination increases the urgency for both parties to respond to this problem.

And for anyone who wants to argue that impoverished or minority Americans are being short changed, one runs a minefield of envy, and the “what-about-mes.” The same weighs down discussion of the advantages of international trade agreements. If we don’t all share, the biggest issue is me. Similarly, for too many people the environment never seems to be about themselves but someone else, people on islands, lowlands, the next generations, but not themselves. That makes all our problems tougher to deal with.

When he wanted to establish a program for the elderly and the injured, the genius of President Franklin Roosevelt was to make it seem universal. Social security insurance applied to all kinds of people and most kinds of jobs.[1] We pay into the system long before we know whether and how much we’ll need. Many get social security who would be excluded by any need based program. But that’s the point. There is no stigma to social security. FDR did it as an insurance program; most of us contribute and collect. Roosevelt wanted to make it simple – you did your social security business at the post office. And when some politicians wanted to tamper with it for ideological reasons, they found that social security was a third rail of politics. FDR had hit that nail on the head.

Now, however, simple, universal programs like medical insurance have become a political football, and the very possibility of the government pursuing the general welfare is under attack from the not-with-my-money crowd. But because it is under attack, because we cannot count on government even to pull us out of a recession that would involve spending tax dollars, no matter how good the investment, the very possibility of economic changes are much more threatening than they should be.

Investment in infrastructure should be an investment in the general welfare, full of benefits for everyone, putting people to work building it, making jobs and businesses easier to reach, and creating benefits for all of us, from clean water and more reliable utilities to better education and internet services. The best way to protect people from unemployment is to provide jobs that provide benefits for the public. Infrastructure can pay dividends, in jobs and services that make everyone better off, and that only government can build.

Unfortunately politicians prefer big showy projects, dramatic new bridges and buildings rather than maintenance, repair and cost effective options. They prefer projects targeted for their contributors, Or they prefer to get on their soapboxes and try to get us to tear down the very government that made this country a great one. The cost of political behavior that breeds distrust of American government is enormous. Good government, self-government was the signal contribution of America to the world and we are allowing our political infrastructure to crumble along with the water, utility, transportation and electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just who we tax; it’s also what we do. Government matters; it does things for the public that no one else will take care of. We need good government, fair government, government for all of us, but government – strong, effective government – and the confidence that comes from doing it right.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 10, 2016.

[1] On the original exclusions, see Larry DeWitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2010, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html, but he is less convincing regarding motivation. For summaries of current exemptions, see Intuit Inc. (U.S.) at https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/General-Tax-Tips/Who-Is-Exempt-from-Paying-Social-Security-Tax-/INF19965.html or http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/013015/who-exempt-paying-social-security-taxes.asp.


It’s Government’s Job to Make Work Available

April 19, 2016

Bernie and Hilary argue about trade pacts. We know trade pacts cost some jobs and open up others. That’s not a satisfying trade-off if your skill is suddenly unmarketable and you’ve become unemployed or underemployed. An effective response is crucial.

But protecting specific jobs will ultimately hold America back, diminish our competitiveness, and damage our ability to develop in new directions. Government should not protect specific, unsustainable jobs or avoid trade pacts that promote economic progress, national security or other international objectives.

But – and it’s a very important but – government should make sure that we can all work to support ourselves and our families. That’s why Republican insistence on scaling back Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 and then blocking more investment in infrastructure was very much the wrong move. It shirked our responsibility to each other and made moving forward politically more difficult.

The way government can make jobs available is to hire people to do what we should be doing and building. Once people are working, business and investors will take advantage of the extra income flowing and build their businesses and inventory to satisfy the demand.

But businesses don’t invest in order to create demand. Individual businesses can’t assume their investments will change the economic picture significantly, certainly not enough to repay their investments. Individual businesses can’t assume that they will reap the benefits of having created more jobs – people spend their paychecks in many places only a fraction of which will come back to the company.

That’s just one of the reasons pouring more money into the hands of what Republicans like to call job-creators is worthless, like a Rube Goldberg invention in its totally confused complexity. Business invests to meet demand or to create a product they think will sell – they don’t invest just because they have money. And since in fact they have lots of money on hand, many have been engaging in various forms of financial manipulation, buying back stock, sending money abroad, anything but job-creating investment or investments here.

That means that both Bernie and Hilary are hitting the nail of economic doldrums for the many people who can’t find decent jobs right on the head. It’s a problem that needs government to work for us.

Putting people to work solves many problems at once. Putting people to work supplies the person-power to re-build, update and renovate infrastructure. Putting people to work, pushes the wage scale for the best of reasons – not just a legal minimum wage pegged to an arbitrary number, marketplace pressure for employees raises the payscale. Putting people to work improves the business outlook. And infrastructure improvements improves the feasibility of successful investment for everyone – not just the favored projects of a few but improved access for all of us means that people with a good idea will have the opportunity to get the resources they need and access to the customers they want.

Of course whether government can pay for doing the right thing depends on whether government can actually impose taxes on the people and companies who have money. Arguing about protecting the so-called job-creators bv reducing their taxes is actually a way of starving government so that those so-called job creators can squeeze workers who are uprotected because government can’t afford to do anything about it. A successful modern economy requires a government with the resources to play its part.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 19, 2016.

 


People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2016.


Jobs and the “job creator” fairy tale

December 22, 2015

At this season in which charity is high on our agenda, I’d like to address some economic issues. I recently spoke with you about what the oligarchs are doing to American democracy. This time I’d like to talk with you about is happening to our jobs and wages. Jobs have recovered slowly from the 2008 crash; wages have flatlined for a decade. Candidates should be talking about jobs and wages.

Some want to turn money over to what they call the “job creators” – fabulous, fairy tale language. When taxes were cut to the 1%, the great bulk of that money didn’t finance jobs, or even trickle down to the rest of us. The 1% used it for finance, to jack up asset prices, buy and sell companies, close factories and outsource jobs abroad, or build McMansions, everything but better lives for American workers, who put in long hours at multiple jobs, with little to show for it but worry about the future. Creating jobs by lowering taxes hasn’t worked for decades because we already did it decades ago; now it’s become a fairy tale told for the gullible. It’s amazing the demonstrable nonsense that people can convince themselves of.

Our society insists it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to find work. As a legal aid lawyer, I worked closely with unemployed, mostly African-American clients. I felt like I was watching them die. Losing a job left them feeling worthless; nothing was more deeply hurtful or more threatening. With little to tide them over, they lived where they could afford housing, far from jobs, without cars to get to interviews or available work, or any network of employed friends to point them to possible jobs. On-the-job training left them few transferable skills, and parents struggled to find affordable day care. The more they needed work, the harder it was to find a job.

We had a fellow do odd jobs, yard work, pick up bottles and cans for the deposit, after losing his last job for lack of transportation. A lawsuit for unrelated injuries got him enough to buy a car. Instantly he was working, steadily.

The stuff called tough love isn’t love but it is dumb. People without assets or work become vulnerable to doing anything just to stay alive. That affects all of us.

The unemployed cost us money, for unemployment insurance, because of the dislocation that unemployment generates, and for lots of police because we fear the jobless. They cost us money because of the decrease in property values, the poor prospects of their children and those who live in areas of high unemployment. We pay in the fear of going out at night or stepping on to the wrong street; and we lose the multi-generational workforce we want for our own programs and projects.

Any responsible business person would include all the costs to individuals and our communities in their balance sheet for deciding whether to support a job program. To evaluate the cost to each of us individually in taxes, compare it to the taxes we have to pay for not putting people to work, as well as the value of the work they could do.

The notion that all taxes are bad for us, is sloppy economics. Justice, fairness and safety are not trade-offs but different sides of the same coin. I’d put people to work rebuilding and improving the infrastructure and other needed projects. There are a lot of things we can do to boost the economy and provide jobs if we are not bamboozled by fairy tale language about what the princes would do for us if only they had even more money.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 22, 2015.

 


Putting people to work in cities and towns

January 21, 2014

Nationally, Republicans are still fighting unemployment relief and virtually every piece of a public safety net. Their solution to every problem is to blame the victim. Out of work? Must be because people didn’t look, or just like poverty. Never mind people spending their days looking for work. It must be their fault, because the only victims worth caring about, of what we politely call the business cycle, are businessmen. Everything would be fine if people would work for pennies a day like much of the world, so the companies they work for could pocket the difference while workers forego food, clothing, shelter and health.

Republicans just don’t get that people are looking, trying, wanting to hold jobs, their only prospect of living a decent life. Blaming the victims for the misbehavior of many captains of industry makes them feel better and helps fend off regulating or taxing their contributors. Let everyone else suffer. They turn the pain of unemployment into an argument for giving their contributors yet another tax break, claiming this, finally, will result in jobs – though business has the cash if it wants to invest. Republican economic policy, at least as they describe it to you and me, is all about the power of magical thinking.

There’s a better way to provide jobs and use taxpayer money more efficiently – just think about the things we could do that would make our neighborhoods more livable, from safety services to taking care of playgrounds and parks. Read the rest of this entry »


Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

October 8, 2013

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own? Read the rest of this entry »


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